What is happiness?
At some point in our lives, we’ve all ruminated on that question.
Every single person on this earth seeks to understand the meaning of happiness and how to pursue it. We might not openly chase it, but one way or another, almost everything we do implies that we want it.
We travel to the other side of the world hoping to find happiness within a new culture. Relationships are said to bring utter joy, so we forever search for it within the arms of another person. We leave jobs because they no longer bring us peace, and quit friendships that disappoint us.
We buy new things since the old ones no longer make us smile. We change homes and welcome new neighbors who might fill the silence in our living room. We upgrade phones and purchase new cars to replace previous ones and get us one step closer to happiness.
Bottom line is: most of us would do anything for happiness.
However, are we doing it right? Are we looking for it in the appropriate places?
Six years ago, when I was on a visit to Kopan monastery in Nepal, I read the following words by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on a wooden board:
“The most important factor in maintaining peace within oneself, in the face of any difficulty, is one’s mental attitude. If it is distorted by such feelings as anger, attachment or jealousy, then even the most comfortable environment will bring one no peace. On the other hand, if one’s attitude is generally calm and gentle, then even a hostile environment will have little effect on one’s own inner peace. Since the basic source of peace and happiness is one’s own mental attitude, it is worthwhile adopting means to develop it in a positive way.”
The Dalai Lama’s words hit a chord back then. And I had an epiphany that has since changed the conditioned pattern of my mind. What I realized was that we might be looking for happiness in all the wrong places after all.
When it comes to life’s most complicated matters, there isn’t just right or wrong. However, there’s usually something that “feels” right at least. And, working on my own mental attitude to achieve happiness feels right for me.
Traveling, buying new things, changing homes, and indulging in romance do make us happy—temporarily. But the happiness that we seek from the outside is transient. That’s why it’s challenging to keep it or feel it for the long haul.
I’m convinced we’ve all experienced it on some level. How many times have we thought we’d never feel sad or upset again only because we did this or obtained that? And how many times were we disappointed?
Countless, I bet. We say, “I’ll never be that happy ever again” when we lose the source of our happiness—whether it’s a person, a job, a place, or a physical thing. Yet, in a matter of days, months, or years, we regain the same amount of happiness from another new source.
What the Dalai Lama wants us to know is that happiness that comes from the outside is fragile, constantly oscillating. But the happiness that comes from within is solid, unchanging. And so, he says: “…if one’s attitude is generally calm and gentle, then even a hostile environment will have little effect on one’s own inner peace.”
What the Dalai Lama suggests is accurate, but it can be tough to put into action. Through adopting his words, we’re changing a whole set of fixed ideas and introducing new ones. Most importantly, we’re doing deep inner work that involves a series of trial and error.
Truth is, life is full of setbacks. And working on our perpetual happiness is a shield against them.
Don’t get me wrong though. I’m not implying in any way that we should become devoid of natural emotions such as anger or agony. In fact, we should be more in touch with them. Yes, life will disappoint us and we might react in different ways. However, what really matters is that beneath all the disturbed emotions lies an indefinite amount of happiness.
We need to accept that outward happiness is fleeting. Lasting happiness comes when we cultivate it from the inside out. Everything outside of us is impermanent—our basic source isn’t.